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Hey, Donor 150, we’re your children

His genetic profile was great: handsome, athletic, Ivy League pedigree. But when six children met their biological dad, they were in for a surprise
Kate Spicer
Published: 31 October 2010
JoEllen Marsh is outwardly unremarkable. The 20-year-old has an easy manner; she is humble, calm, quietly confident and diligent. She edited her school newspaper. “I was in the choir and Amnesty International. I did yoga,” she says. No cheerleader aspirations? “Uh, no.”
An A-grade student, she is now studying Arabic in Jordan for a year as part of a degree in Middle Eastern intelligence studies. “I’ll probably work in international development,” she says. “I’m not planning on espionage.”
Before she was 10 she was like a little spy, playing around on the internet, making searches that she hoped would give her clues to her identity. Perhaps she was inspired by her birth mother who is a keen amateur genealogist and has traced the Marsh family tree back centuries.
Maybe it was something deeper, however. For JoEllen comes from a “two mom” lesbian family. One of her mothers, Lucinda, conceived her with semen from a sperm bank in California. This was fine with JoEllen: she knew how she was made. “If you grow up and it’s part of your identity, it’s cool. I’m proud,” she says. “It’s my story.”
Yet still she was driven to search for her father. Five years ago, when she was 15, JoEllen’s internet searches turned up a plum when she found the Donor Sibling Registry. The website helps children conceived with donated sperm to find any half-siblings they might have and, potentially, their fathers.
Soon after signing up JoEllen was contacted by Danielle Pagano, who was a year older than her and who shared the knowledge that she was also the progeny of Donor 150 from the California Cryobank. Others followed and eventually the donor himself, Jeffrey Harrison, came forward.
This week a film about JoEllen and her siblings, Donor Unknown, will have its premiere at the Sheffield documentary festival. In all, 14 of Harrison’s children have been discovered, although there may be many more. The film covers the remarkable relationships of six of the children and their search for and eventual meeting with their biological father, who turned out to be very different from the man suggested by his sperm bank profile.
Sperm banks are there to make money, get women pregnant and keep donors anonymous. They can just sell, sell, sell that sperm Whether because of society’s increasing knowledge of the importance of our genetic inheritance, or perhaps because of some innate desire to find out one’s parentage, the subject has caught the attention of the mainstream.
This weekend The Kids are All Right opened in Britain to critical acclaim. In it a handsome sperm donor, played by Mark Ruffalo, interrupts the lives of an attractive lesbian couple, played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, after their donor inseminated children seek him out. The film’s director, Lisa Cholodenko, a lesbian, admits the film is loosely based on her experience of having a child with donor sperm. The script was co-written with a friend, Stuart Blumberg, who has been a sperm donor in the past.
The film is this year’s third Hollywood movie about this seemingly unsexy subject, following the banal The Back-up Plan, starring Jennifer Lopez, and Jennifer Aniston’s The Switch (its grim working title was The Turkey Baster).
Donor insemination has been around for years; it is the world’s oldest form of assisted reproduction. As a big business, however, it is a post-war invention. Sperm banks in America are like dating agencies: a prime genetic selection box in which donors’ looks are compared with celebrities. In Britain donors cannot be paid anything more than “expenses” and compensation for loss of earnings, to a maximum of £250 a time, but in America a good living can be made out of selling your seed, with donors paid hundreds of dollars for each deposit. The American fertility business is also unregulated (the doctor who enabled 2009’s “Octomom” octuplets is being sued for negligence, but he did nothing wrong legally).
“There are no laws,” says Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry. “Sperm banks are there to make money, get women pregnant and keep donors anonymous. They can just sell, sell, sell that sperm.”
Her work is testimony to that. Since 2000 Kramer has matched 7,800 people (37 of them British) through her site. Most of these connections are sibling to sibling, but occasionally donors come through.
Kramer thinks her services are increasingly in demand because “those early kids born to families that could not hide the truth — to lesbians and single parents — are now coming of age and curious”.
Eventually this trend will hit Britain. Children conceived with donated sperm after April 1, 2005 have the right to know their donor’s identity once they reach 18. Those conceived from sperm bought in America can already use the Donor Sibling Registry to find siblings.
JoEllen and her siblings’ story began at the California Cryobank. It provides 40% of the donor sperm in the United States and is the sixth-largest user of FedEx’s courier services in California. At the time it was also the only sperm bank that would supply direct to the end user, cutting out the expensive clinical middleman in the fertility unit. This was where Harrison deposited gametes, occasionally four times a week, for eight years, for money.
Donor 150 was popular. The mothers, even the lesbian ones, recall his California Cryobank file with a curious romance: 6ft tall, blue eyes, an accomplished athlete, dancer, philosophy student, musical ... One even talks of “putting him on a pedestal”. Lucinda Marsh, JoEllen’s mother, reads out his entry: “I’m happy and happy-go-lucky. I am spiritual.” She says: “He had me right there.”
Harrison was indeed from good breeding stock. Ivy League brains cling to his upper-class family tree. His grandfather, George L Harrison, was an adviser to Franklin D Roosevelt’s government. His brother is a distinguished opera set designer. They are notable entries on Wikipedia.
But there’s “on paper” Jeffrey and then there’s the real Jeffrey. Harrison has what is best called an unconventional lifestyle. He says he had always hoped he would meet his family but he was also “scared to death”. The reason? “I did not want anyone looking into my life, wondering is he a doctor, a lawyer, and finding, no, he’s a beach bum.”
Home is a beaten-up camper van with a broken transmission in a beachside parking lot in a bohemian Los Angeles neighbourhood. He shares it with four dogs and other rescued animals, be they a common grey pigeon or a raccoon. Harrison is a likable bum in a drop-out sense rather than a derelict smelling-of-wee sense, but make no mistake — he has certainly fallen off the edge of normal society.
He has endless stories: some unrepeatable in print without involving a battalion of lawyers; others good inspiration for Aniston’s next goofy romcom about the modern girl’s pratfalls. He describes an “intense eyes meet across a crowded elevator at California Cryobank” moment. The woman asks him for his number: he thinks phone; she says, no, donor. “You know, maybe I had a kid with that woman too,” he says, cheery as anything.
Being presented with his children, he says, was “ amazing when you see them for the first time, multiple ones, all lined up. You’ve never seen them and then these adults are lined up all looking like you. I just couldn’t believe it was happening.”
He sends me texts at all times of day and night describing sharing laughs with numerous offspring over an Andy Warhol graphic novel about sperm donors. “I love the kids,” he concludes.
Meeting long-lost “family” members has proved an intense experience for his children, too — although more in relation to the interaction between them than anything to do with their father’s lifestyle.
When we found out about Jeffrey, my mom just wanted me to remember she was the one that changed my diapers Danielle and JoEllen were the first siblings to meet. They describe the experience as “weird” — a word that recurs often in their conversations about their situation. Yet, like all the half-siblings in the film, they formed a strong bond. Familiarity came quickly and before long they were teasing each other. They describe large, chaotic, long-distance conference calls as the group got to know one another.
The way in which the children share traits — with, essentially, strangers — is spooky. They all tuck their hair behind their ears, have sloping teeth, thick shiny dark hair. They are all mellow characters. Roxanne Shaffer, 21, says that in her case, “that could be Jeffrey or it could be because I am from California”, before adding: “He does have really good genes, though.”
Roxanne, who is working in Seville and is about to start a PhD in psychology, grew up with two half-siblings “who had fathers” from her mother’s earlier marriage. She says the different types of sibling relationships are “not the same. The ]relationship [of the Donor 150 siblings] will progress but it will never be the same as with my brother and sister because we don’t have the shared experiences.
“When we found out about Jeffrey, my mom just wanted me to remember she was the one that changed my diapers. [But] Jeff is nice, he has the kindest heart.” So far so level-headed and not screwed-up.
Ryann McQuilton is 23 and about to start a creative writing master’s at the University of Southern California. “One of the main reasons we all seem so content with the situation is that we had the opportunity to find each other and Jeffrey. It would have been a different story if any of us had been interviewed [for the film] before finding each other,” she says.
“I felt unsure about having a donor when I was younger. I was lucky that my parents were always honest with me about having a donor. Not everyone is. When parents keep the truth from their child it can be damaging both to that relationship and to the child’s self-image.”
Danielle, the product of heterosexual parents, was not told the truth until her teens. Everyone, including herself, recognises she “has issues” about that.
Some have other reservations. At 22, Rachelle Longest is one of the older Donor 150 offspring. She has never had an interest in meeting her father, but loves her relationship with her half-siblings. She has no problem with the idea of donor insemination and plans to donate some of her own eggs. “Ties of blood are not what make a family; it’s ties of love,” she says.
Where she does have a problem is with dating and the potential for incest. “I grew up paranoid, thinking: this guy could be my brother, my cousin, my uncle.” She only went out with men of markedly different ethnic origins and is now engaged to a man from Belize.
Kramer says she knows of one donor whose sperm was used successfully at least 125 times. As Rachelle points out, that means his offspring have a significantly higher chance of kissing a half-sibling in the United States than winning the lottery. In Britain a donor is limited to 10 children or fewer, as he chooses.
Such doubts aside, the Donor 150 children seem remarkably happy with their new, extended, very modern family. They adopt a pragmatic approach, combining fealty to their parents with affection and gratitude towards Jeffrey.
“My moms were the ones who planned and prayed to have me, gave me as much love and guidance as they possibly could. They are my parents. Nothing will change that,” says JoEllen.
“My relationship with Jeffrey is different. He wasn’t there to raise me, but he gave me the opportunity to be born. He’s been open and willing to meet, answer questions and form a relationship with me. I’m so happy for everything he’s done. I couldn’t ask anything more of him.”
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